Travelling around a country sometimes brings you to sights and places strange and inexplicable. Bulgaria abounds with these. Some are millennia old and others appeared only a decade ago. Their strangeness may lie in their lack of familiarity to the visitor, or it may be the result of something mundane, such as the lack of proper signage. Or it can be attributed to the widespread lack of common sense in Bulgaria, or could be a factor that the ancient Romans would have called genius loci, the spirit of the place.
Every visitor who has ventured off the beaten track in Bulgaria has at least one such mysterious, inexplicable place to remember. Here is our selection.
Some rock shrines of the ancient Thracians get quite a lot of publicity and visitors nowadays, like Perperikon and Tatul, in the Rhodope. However, lack of signage leaves travellers at their wits end, trying to work out what was what in the days when the Thracians inhabited the eastern Balkans. Belintash is the best example for this, a puzzle of ritual basins for blood and wine sacrifices and strangely shaped rocks. Lack of proper information here – including archaeological research – make this place the ideal canvas to unleash your imagination of times and people past.
VILLAGES ABANDONED IN DAMS
You travel around some dam, and then – bang! – you see a church, half sunken in the still waters, like the one in this picture, in the Zhrebchevo Reservoir, near Tvarditsa. It once served the people of Zapalnya village. These churches and the villages they belonged to – some were centuries old – were abandoned during Communism when the hectic construction of dams was undertaken. The people were forced to resettle, leaving behind their homes, churches and graveyards.
ATIYA NAVAL BASE
Atiya, a cape south of Burgas, is Bulgaria's biggest naval base, but while travelling in the area you will feel more as though you are in a post-apocalyptic movie than a stronghold of NATO. The reason for the devastation was the closure of the nearby gold and copper Rosenets Mine, in 2001, when mercury pollution reached critical levels. The government tried to clean up and restore the area, but the beach remains polluted and – untypically for the overpopulated Bulgarian South Black Sea coast – empty.
Mysterious ruins in Bulgaria date not only from Antiquity, or the Middle Ages. Many more are from the late 1990s and the 2000s, like Kremikovtsi, which used to be the biggest metallurgical plant in Bulgaria. What happened? Many things. First, large factories were built during Communism, in spite of the fact that Bulgaria lacks resources for heavy industry. For decades these worked at full speed, fed by state subsidies and the undemanding markets of the East bloc. When Communism in Europe collapsed and Bulgaria went bankrupt, the subsidies died out and the markets disappeared. Many of the factories – often deliberately – did not find new markets and went bankrupt, too. They were then sold for next to nothing to companies that used them as sources of scrap metal and closed them. Forever.
In the era of the Satnav, Bulgaria remains a place where consulting the GPS and a paper map does not guarantee that you will reach your destination – or, indeed, an actual road. Regardless of what the computer voice from your navigation says, and the map on your lap shows, in reality roads in Bulgaria often turn into dirt tracks or simply disappear, leaving you wandering how this could happen anywhere outside Mongolia (okay, we haven't been to Mongolia, so we are not sure about that country).
OLD VILLAGE CEMETERIES
Stone crosses ornately decorated with suns, moons, flowers or geometrical motifs: you can find them all over Bulgaria, close to churches or in the middle of nowhere. Who did they belong to? What happened to the people buried beneath them? How old are they? These imagination-provoking cemeteries were in use between the 17th and the mid-20th centuries. Some were abandoned, together with their villages, because of some plague that forced people to move to a new untainted place, or just because they wanted better land. Other graveyards slowly decayed when the last living relatives of their inhabitants died and were forgotten, too, and new cemeteries appeared for the new dead.
BELENE NUCLEAR POWER PLANT
To be, or not to be: one of the most mysterious questions in modern Bulgaria concerns the fate of the Belene Nuclear Power Plant. Bulgaria's second nuclear facility, on the Danube, was conceived in 1981. Building began, but was halted in 1990. Since then, the questions of whether the nuclear power plant should be built, and by whom, and for how much, have been on and off the political agenda, mixing together Russia, the EU, the United States and a national referendum, and creating yet another fault line in the already divided Bulgarian society. A definitive answer there is not, resulting in this strange, half-ruined but still strongly guarded facility by the bank of the Danube.
The Thracians are popular in Bulgaria: many locals believe that the nation has more to do with this ancient people rather than with the Slavs and the proto-Bulgarians. This, however, does not mean that remains of Thracian rock shrines and megaliths, mainly in the Rhodope and Strandzha mountains, are taken good care of. On the contrary. After so-called eco-paths were built with EU money in the early 2000s to some of the most interesting examples, the money eventually ran out. Now, most of the Thracian rock heritage is hidden in the undergrowth, and the information signs are missing or too faded to make any sense. As a result, if you stumble upon sites like the menhir in Ovcharovo village, or the Dolni Glavanak stone circle, both near Haskovo, you might wonder what they really are until the end of your days.
This one is quite famous: a 56-metre long stone bridge from the 16th Century over the Arda River, near Ardino. The mystery here comes from the intriguing connection of the bridge and the Devil. Legends, old and new, abound. Here is an incomplete list of the most popular. This bold bridge was built by the Devil. The Devil was entombed in the bridge. The Devil lurks in the water under the bridge. The Devil saved a Bulgarian maiden chased by Turks: when she jumped into the river, choosing death over conversion, Satan brought her to safety and scared off her pursuers.
Judging from the recent fashion for building fortresses in Bulgaria, you might get the impression that the country no longer has any fortification that has remained untouched by modern mortar and tiles. And then, you stumble on a genuine ruin of a fortress, like Matochina, near Svilengrad (pictured). Structures like this – Mezek in the same area is another example – survived modern rebuilding mainly because they are still too close to the border with Turkey and Greece where few tourists go.
If you are a lover of those Top 10 Abandoned Places lists on the Internet, you will be familiar with the eerie dilapidation of the Buzludzha monument-cum-convention-centre, near the Shipka Pass. If you are not, you have definitely wondered what the menacing building that reminds you of a concrete flying saucer with a pillar is. The thing was built in 1981, on top of a mountain peak, to commemorate the founding of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1891. It was abandoned after the collapse of Communism, and nature and gravity took their toll of its lavish mosaics of the saints of Communism (Marx, Lenin, Georgi Dimitrov and so on), happy workers and bosomy Bulgarian women.
Walking through an underpass in Sofia is a scary and mystical experience. The lights are dim. The air is damp. Displaced tiles squeak under your feet, and sad street musicians repeat the same sad melodies. The echoing steps and the dark silhouettes of other passersby sound and look as though from a horror movie. It gets even worse if you are trying to climb up and down the steep stairs during the icy winter, or with a baby buggy. Even the underpass between the Office of the President and the Council of Minsters gets flooded after a moderately heavy rain storm hits the capital. How could this happen in Sofia, an EU capital? A mystery, indeed.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.